Ben and Lynn's 45 Books in 45 Minutes: The Holiday Edition

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Ben and Lynn's 45 Books in 45 Minutes: The Holiday Edition

By Hilary Fair

Vit Wagner calls Ben McNally Books “handsomely appointed.” To my eye, the only detail missing is the hearth everyone yearns for come December.

Between the dark wood shelving and high ceilings, the stacks of crisp hardcovers and the wine and cheese, McNally’s feels like a warm, decadent refuge. Like a space outside the unpleasant bits of retail’s holiday fever. People mill around nibbling brie, reading book jackets, looking content. The pinpoint lighting is a gentle, welcome antidote to the fact that we now lose the sun before 5 p.m.

If there were a fireplace, no one would leave.

Granted, this is afterhours. I’m here for the holiday edition of Ben and Lynn Present 45 Books in 45 Minutes, a quick draw performance by McNally and his wife, Lynn Thomson, where they share their long list — the “best of” fiction and non-fiction, from the last half of 2010. The event is free (though space is limited); the hope is that many of the titles they present will go home with the bookie crowd that sits down to listen with wine, cheese and pen in hand.

And they’ve chosen beautiful books — smooth, sometimes-glossy, often-colourful artifacts even the Kindle-crazy will want to touch.

The game is this: with copies of all 45 at the ready, McNally and Thomson share the task of providing ultra-brief, hopefully compelling, synopses of each. McNally challenges the crowd to hold him to his claim: literally 45 in 45. It gives them under a minute (breathing time considered) to nuance the coyly vague descriptions on the cheat sheets their staff hand out. And that’s what everyone’s here for: supplementary information inflected by anecdote and opinion, straight from Ben and Lynn's mouths. If done well, this should achieve more than even the most glowing back of book reviews can. Because the people gathered in this shop seem to trust its proprietor and his team. They’re here, ready to be persuaded that they cannot leave with out this one. And this one. And, well, that one.

I watched McNally and Thomson plug their favourite 45 of the season back in June. I was impressed with their brevity then. A glance at the papers they pass around indicates they’ve honed the skill further. It’s filled with things like “Death in SoHo”; “Not Elizabeth Taylor”; “Remember the financial crisis?” — statements that make hints but no promises.

Blurbs like “Surf’s up!” don’t attest to the social, environmental and political implications of big waves. It makes Susan Casey’s The Wave sound like a kowabunga memoir, rather than a smart, “fascinating” examination of our simultaneous attraction to, and ignorance about, one of the world’s most mystifying natural phenomena. We still can’t explain their origins — or the reason human beings deliberately seek them out. But big waves are responsible for the disappearance of an alarmingly large, grossly underreported number of boats every year. “If we lost planes like we lose ships…” McNally begins. This is the good stuff — the politics, the psychology — and it trips off his tongue, not the page, in under a minute.

Similarly, “A singular history of domestic life” doesn’t quite hit the brilliance of Bill Bryson’s At Home. It’s Thomson’s description that gives the concept life. She assures the crowd that Bryson lives up to expectation here. At Home is a meticulous inventory of his own English home, she says — one that translates into a witty, sweeping historical text, where a stroll through the kitchen inspires gripping tangents on the history of salt, the spice trade, and the British coffee house.

And then she holds up Laura Bell’s Claiming Ground — one woman’s tale of her dogs, her horse and 2,000 sheep. It’s “Montana. Sheep. Writing to die for” on the cheat sheet. It’s an “absolutely glorious” web of human relationships and growth and transition moments on Thomson’s lips.

Their picks could be spliced into the beautiful (Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden), the provocative (Devra Davis’ Disconnect; Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class), and the wonderfully bizarre (Alissa York’s Fauna).

Things get political with Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon (which communicates his “humourless” but “incisive” supposition that, in the next twenty-five years, everything of importance will happen on, in, or near the Indian Ocean). They get controversial as McNally expresses his opinion of literary heavyweights Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. To his view, Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life (which straddles a child and adult readership), is a work where the author’s “air of superiority is [finally] not out of place”; Roth’s Nemesis — an account of “Polio in New Jersey in 1943” — is an unexpected gem, by an author that, he says, has been “predictable until now.”

In an uncanny, timely twist, McNally recommends David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. This is a novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a mother’s desperate avoidance of her son’s death-in-service. It’s written by an author that lost his own son at the end of the Israeli offensive in Lebanon. And McNally shares it, wittingly or not, on the same day the Canadian military ombudsman publicly expressed concern over the way our Department of National Defence supports the grieving families of our casualties.

McNally and Thomson cover history with Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, with Ken Follet’s fictional Fall of Giants and with Charlotte Gray’s Gold Diggers (worth reading, they report, just for insight into the logistics of selling lingerie in the Klondike). They touch art with Ross King’s Writers’ Trust-nominated Defiant Spirits. Translations of Doctor Zhivago and Madame Bovary make the list by right of being absolutely “beautiful books.”

They cover a few prize-winners, from this year and last (Emma Donoghue’s Room; the English translation of Dominique Fortier’s On the Proper Use of Stars), and they list off a slew of should-have-been nominees (Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line; Robert Edric’s Salvage; Camilla Gibb’s Beauty of Humanity Movement; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet).

Perhaps the most interesting part of all this is the way McNally and Thomson transform book buying into a community event. Wading through bookstores is something I prize as a deeply, wonderfully private activity — so I’m surprised by how much I enjoy these evenings. Internalizing the tastes of others disrupts my routine, which usually winds from certain authors, to certain genres, to the bargain bin. But McNally and Thomson have led me, twice now, to some great stuff — beneath titles I wouldn’t linger over on my own. This strikes me as particularly beneficial in a moment where I’m pressed to pick the stories I want to share with others. (And where my own compulsions don’t matter as much as thinking through what someone else will want.)

Other notables from the long-list:

Non-Fiction:

Simon Winchester’s Atlantic
Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?
Edmund de Waal’s Hare with Amber Eyes
Margaret Trudeau’s Changing My Mind
Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet
Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye
Deborah Cadbury’s Chocolate Wars
Thomas Powers’ The Killing of Crazy Horse
Bethany Mclean and Joe Nocera’s All the Devils are Here
Tim Cook’s The Madman and the Butcher
Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia
E. Foley and B. Coates’ Homework for Grown-ups
John Vaillant’s The Tiger

Fiction:

Sara Gruen’s Ape House
Nicole Krauss’ Great House
Nicola Barker’s Burley Cross Postbox Theft
Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
Howard Norman’s What is Left the Daughter
Cristina Garcia’s The Lady Matador’s Hotel
Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night
Ted Mooney’s Same River Twice
John LeCarre Our Kind of Traitor
Lief Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End

* * *

Hilary Fair is new to the city and is trying to find her footing in its literary community while curbing her nomadic tendencies. She’s a new grad from a Master of English program and thinks that she’s finally at the end of her “long road to Toronto.” The last eight years have taken her to various pockets of this province, through Europe a couple of times and to the west coast of Canada for a short stint as an islander. Hilary is pleased to be part of Open Book: Toronto and to have more opportunities to participate in the city’s literary events. She is working at various internships while she also works on getting brave and sharing her words.

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